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special education in other countries
Carol Kinlan

In “Learning from Finland,” Pasi Sahlberg highlights reasons for the success of Finland’s educational system – noting, in particular, that Finns highly regard and strongly support their teachers, and that local schools are given great independence.

It turns out that there are additional lessons to be learned from Finland when it comes to special education.

In a 2010 paper comparing special education in Finland and the U.S., Tiina Itkonen and Markku Jahnukainen report that Finland’s educational structures are very flexible, with teachers enjoying high levels of authority and autonomy. Diagnostic labels for students struggling with learning disorders are rarely used and students receive immediate support when they begin to experience academic difficulty. A formal diagnosis is not a prerequisite to receiving extra help. Finland’s more open-ended and flexible policies, according to Itkonen and Jahnukainen, result in a radical drop in the prevalence of learning disorders at the secondary-school level.

In contrast to Finland, special-education policies in the U.S. are bureaucratic. Our policies for determining eligibility and services – based on the medical model – are rigid, complex and prescriptive. Navigating the special-education system can be downright nightmarish for parents. And, as special educators know, individualized education programs (IEPs) are products of federal special-education statutes – hardly a model for encouraging parent-teacher cooperation and shaping student performance based on an individual’s learning profile.

Most importantly, the U.S. educational system, in contrast to Finland’s, does a poor job of identifying weak students in the earliest grades and supporting them effectively. The result is a time-consuming and frustrating process for parents who struggle to determine exactly why their child is faltering in school – and what they can do to help them. In the U.S., preschool and elementary teachers are not consistently given training to identify and remediate children who display clear early signs of reading- or other language-based disorders. This is problematic because there’s a critical neural-cognitive window – open roughly from ages 3 to 7 – during which the acquisition of reading skills is optimal. As a leading literacy expert has found, between 65 and 75 percent of children identified as reading-disabled early on “continue to read poorly through their school careers (and beyond).”

Learning disorders, especially in reading, are among the bigger factors impacting the academic success of students in the U.S. According to the National Institutes of Health, 15-20 percent of U.S. children have language-based learning disabilities – and in four out of five cases, the disability is related to reading. This reality helps account for the U.S.’s 12th-place finish in reading literacy among the 34 countries that participated in the most recent Programme for International Student Assessment.

MRI brain-based research and recent gene studies on heredity and learning disorders have revealed many new things. Here are two for educators: first, future reading ability can be as strongly predicted in kindergarten as it can be in later grades; second, the likelihood of inheriting a learning disorder (like dyslexia) from a parent is at least 50 percent. This important research, largely conducted in the U.S., should encourage teachers and parents to seek early and intensive remediation when, for example, a young child struggles to name letters rapidly and easily or who has noticeable difficulties with oral language.

This critical research, however, has not been broadly communicated to teachers. Consequently, many elementary-school teachers remain unaware of current research findings about children with dyslexia and other disorders. Worse still, procedures are often not in place for effective and appropriately intensive intervention. Even knowledgeable teachers don’t always have the flexibility and staffing necessary to intervene quickly and help struggling children.

Instead of training a clinical, objective eye on young learners who display troubling warning signs, we have a tendency to wait for testing, further failure by the child and emotional or behavioral decline. This “wait-and-see” approach results in delayed remediation, which – unlike a preventive or highly individualized model – negatively impacts future school success for many of our students. And in some cases, a child in need of support doesn’t receive it because average test scores on standardized achievement or cognitive tests are taken to mean no support is necessary.

The federal government has recently taken steps in the right direction – in particular, by enshrining Early Intervening Services (EIS) and Response To Intervention (RTI) in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – but more work must be done. As noted by the Council for Exceptional Children, “While RTI is a special education initiative, for it to work general education must lead the effort by providing evidence-based instruction to all students, along with  research-based interventions to struggling learners.” Furthermore, RTI interventions don’t always provide the right type and level of remediation to a struggling student – in part because many teachers do not know how to identify specific learning disorders and how to take appropriate action. Given the lack of specific special-education training most teachers receive, this should come as no surprise.

It is imperative that we provide more educational resources and greater flexibility to preschool and elementary teachers. They need to know the current research regarding the relatively narrow window for remediating learning disorders, especially for those related to reading fluency. Finally, they need to have the flexibility to work at the local level, unencumbered by rigid policies and procedures, with the goal of helping each child reach his or her maximum potential.

Carol A. Kinlan is the middle-school director of learning resources at the Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Mass., and an educational consultant for families of children with reading disorders and executive-function weaknesses.

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  1. “…there’s a critical neural-cognitive window – open roughly from ages 3 to 7 – during which the acquisition of reading skills is optimal.”

    It is so ironic that this article starts out talking about the differences between the educational system in Finland and then talks about *early* intervention in reading and so on. Everything that I have read (see this article: states that (by law) students in Finland do not start formal schooling until they are 7 years old, and that while children there attend universal preschool, it is non-academic in nature.

    Apparently, they hold reading as a national priority as the book cart shows up when a baby is born to distribute books on the government’s tab. It would follow that most parents spend quality time with their children reading to them, allowing them to progress at their own pace with one-on-one attention.

    Maybe the problem in the U.S. is that 1/4 of our people live in poverty (compared with 3% in Finland where they have universal healthcare coverage and paid maternity leave) so parents here working two or three jobs don’t have time to stay home to read to their children (if they even know how to read–not always the case with many ELLs and those in generational poverty).

    Or maybe the problem in the U.S. is that is that kindergarten is the new first grade and we are forcing academic performance on children earlier and earlier; maybe some of them are not ready and when they experience failure, it becomes a roadblock to success so we have to spend a lot of time doing damage control that otherwise might have been avoided by waiting until the child was ready.

  2. The writer of the previous comment appears to be confusing the current trend to push young children academically with the need for early identification of learning disorders. These are two very different issues. This article is about identifying and/or supporting children who have a familial history of learning issues or who are presenting well-known red flags for dyslexia or other language-based learning disorders. In the medical community, for example, women who have a family history of breast cancer or atypical screenings are watched very, very carefully. In education, family history and early red flags are ignored, at times. We know that due to neural pruning, the fluent acquisition of certain language-based skills (e.g., phonemic awareness, etc.) has an optimal window. Given the high percentage of U.S. children who come from poorer families (compared with Finland), it is even more critical that early elementary school educators know how to identify and support young children who might later struggle with learning disorders.

  3. This article raises questions that have vexed me for some time. Why is the US system of special ed so bureaucratic? Is it necessary for a system as complex and large as ours?
    Are there any good comparative special ed studies out there? As a parent and observer, our system seems pretty poor.

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